This sermon is about Jesus and his buddy,
People might think they didn’t see eye-to-eye,
but not so – though nearly two millennia apart,
they were two peas in a pod.
Darwin was a nature-lover.
He loved to sleep outside without a tent
beneath the canopy of branches,
and he was passionate about learning
what nature has to teach us
through careful listening and observation.
He didn’t just study the hierarchy of violence;
his greatest passion was worms –
slimy, wiggly, earthworms.
In fact, he played piano for them
and the tin whistle;
he even yelled at them,
all to see how they would react
to different stimuli.
Natural Selection describes a biological process
that favors the most adaptive species.
But that biological process
has two measures of time:
geologic time and clock time.
Geologic time is that
slow, generative incremental movement
in which human beings are a very recent addition.
favors the most adaptive species.
As Carl Sagan once pointed out, human beings,
rats, and cockroaches
have similar adaptive capacities
in that each species has learned
to adapt and live in every kind of environment.
But in the more fast-paced measurement
of clock time,
the advantage often goes to the species
with the greatest capacity for violence or coercion.
The big dogs eat the little dogs.
Or to be brutally blatant,
the dominant male lion
eats the baby cubs of his rival.
Or the mother chimpanzee
kills the baby chimps that might compete
with her progeny.
Or the male grizzly may eat his own offspring
to avoid revolution by his own heirs.
We have developed, and appear to be perfecting,
a similar adaption
that reflects the same cruel capacity:
we call it market capitalism
and it thrives on coercion
and survival of the fiercest
as well as benefitting the most adaptive.
Globally, our systems of governance
are an intricately woven association
of alpha organizations and agencies
operated by alpha males and females
exercising coercive power
as a means of gaining and retaining more power.
When it comes to our own herd or tribe,
when we are riding high on that ladder of hierarchy,
we are happy and content.
But when we are lowered a rung or two
we often feel hostile to those above
that took our place in the order of things.
Natural Selection describes the process of survival
and it feels, well, it feels natural.
Anything else, frankly,
sounds naïve and idealistic.
Jesus wasn’t stupid.
He understood the hierarchy of violence.
He had no delusions about the fact
that people like him usually ended up
a bad smell on the sole of a Roman sandal.
In the Roman Empire,
if you were a subject instead of a citizen, or worse,
if you were a peasant on the fringe of the empire,
you might as well have been
a newborn wildebeest on the Serengeti Plain
left alone to be eaten by jackals and wild dogs.
Jesus, and everybody Jesus knew well,
was nothing but complex carbohydrates
for the social predators
that enriched themselves on peasants.
Peasant land, peasant labor, and peasant commerce
were all for the taking.
That is just the way it was, and still is.
The fact that Jesus
straddled the bottom rung of the ladder
and taunted the predators up above,
is disconcerting and bewildering.
So let’s be honest: Who does not want to be the greatest?
Even those of us who do not have a highly passionate ambition to be the top dog,
and those not inclined to work very hard
toward a goal of self-betterment,
would still gladly accept the role
of first and greatest
if offered free of charge.
We all know that rank has its privileges
and we all love privileges.
Even if we don’t want the rank
we want the privileges!
“What were you guys talking about back there?”
Jesus reportedly asked.
“Oh, nothing really,
we were just having an argument
about who could be the least among us
because we all strive to be the least.”
Nobody we think is healthy and sane
thinks like that.
I would bet real money that the Dali Lama
doesn’t want to be the least.
Either does Pope Francis, even though
he visits the least and washes the feet of the least.
Even Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. King,
with all the incredible things they did,
still struggled with ego and ego needs,
and power-lust and alpha male junk.
Nobody wants to be the least.
So Jesus takes a bandy-legged
little morsel of a child
with big adorable eyes
and scrawny little arms
and a thirsty smile with empty gums –
the kind a male grizzly would eat –
and he says,
“Here is your standard.”
What we need to remember,
and I’ve talked about this before,
is that children had no status in that society.
None. I mean really, none.
It is difficult for us to imagine today
in the kingdom of hover parents,
but children were utterly vulnerable,
In Jesus’ day,
some of the surrounding cultures
still practiced child sacrifice,
though that had been abolished long before
in Israel’s history.
But children were still abandoned with frequency,
even sold or bludgeoned to death
if they were physically or mentally diminished.
In Jesus’ day and in Jesus’ culture
children were at the bottom of a fierce and rigid
They did not eat or socialize
with adult men.
They were not accorded any pleasantries
nor were they respected; rather,
they were required to respect and obey
So Jesus takes one of those little urchins,
puts him or her on his lap,
and says to his students:
“Hey look: look at this kid here.
If you want to hang out with me
then you need to serve the needs of this child…
and be happy about it.”
I am not sure we can even imagine
what a disorienting and deflating put-down
that would have been to a bunch of guys
who thought they were serving
a once and future king.
They thought Jesus was going to be the Lion King!
They thought he was going to kick the Romans out of Judea and Galilee.
They thought they were lucky enough
to be in the right place
in the right time
with the right guy to glom onto some glory.
They were thinking about Natural Selection
even though it would be 1900 years before
Charles Darwin coined the phrase.
But let’s be real about it:
Jesus and his associates
actually did live among lions, jackals, and hyenas.
Anyone who lives around wild animals,
or lives as a peasant subject to an empire,
viscerally understands the idea of Natural Selection.
No college or even high school degree is required
to understand what they lived every day.
Jesus was talking to a bunch of people
trying to climb up the ladder on hiscoattails,
or more accurately,
hanging on his robe.
They were excited
and undoubtedly anticipating
something really big,
and in the midst of that giddy,
they got into an argument
about which one of them
was going to be King Junior.
So Jesus brings them down with a thud.
“Nope,” Jesus muses, “we’re going to sleep
out under the stars with the wild things
and we are going to serve the nobodies
like this little kid here;
and we are going to BE nobodies
like this little kid here;
and we are not going to get worked up
about the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.”
Here is what I think he meant by it –
if it doesn’t seem obvious already.
Natural Selection is a great way to describe
how evolution has taken place,
and how species survive through adaptation
or die out because they are not able to adapt –
or simply won’t adapt.
But Natural Selection
is NOT the only option,
at least not for human beings.
I think what Jesus was getting at
is that we can go along with
and survival of the fiercest
if we want to,
and if do, we will be one of the winners or losers.
But we can also opt for a different process.
If we opt for a different process
it will also be natural,
because human beings have been blessed
with imagination and vision
and adaptive thinking
We get to create
the kind of world we want to live in
because we are co-creators with God
rather than slaves to Natural Selection.
We cannot change how other species do it
but we can change how we do it.
Now some folks will say it is naive and Pollyannaish
to deny that it is a dog-eat-dog world
but in saying so, they are simply revealing
their own preference for coercion and violence.
It is a challenge to be imaginative and
adaptive enough to create and live out a different scenario,
and I think that was Jesus’ challenge.
But in talking about Natural Selection
and the opportunity to adapt our way of being,
it is important to avoid getting simplistic
or dogmatic and doctrinaire
about how to re-order life as we live it.
Hierarchy is not always bad
and consensus is not always good.
Real life does not always conform to our prescriptions –
even though we want it to.
So for example, local control and town meetings
can become a merciless dictatorship of the few,
while a majority rule or hierarchical structure
can become a fair-minded and loving
protection of the minority.
The methodis not the ingredient
that makes our community
life-giving and loving or not,
it is how we do what we do
and the character of the people involved.
Every kind of human idea for governance
and the distribution of decision-making
has the potential to create and manage
a loving and life-giving community.
It is more important how our ideas are adapted
for the people and the needs
of those involved.
But you know as well as I do
that some people perched on the top rungs
will do anything to retain their power,
and some of those who live on the lower rungs
will do whatever it takes to capture more power.
So Jesus holds up the little kid.
He models another way of being.
And that is what we need to do also.
We need to exhibit behavior with one another
that will cause people to question
their own behavior.
Big dogs notice new behavior in the pack.
They may not understand it at first
but they will be curious about it;
and whenever someone gets curious
we have created a teachable moment.
We do not have to tame ALL the lions and grizzlies
or teach them how to serve and advocate
for the most vulnerable.
All we have to do
is tame the alpha males and females
and help them imagine another way to be.
The herd will follow.
Trying to tame or teach wild alphas
to exercise their power differently
may seem like a ridiculous,
naïve, and utterly futile thing to try;
and Jesus’ pals
probably didn’t think much of it either.
But the thing is, even after all these years,
no one has quite closed the book on the idea yet,
and so it is still an option.
Personally, being a co-creator with God
and adapting human behavior and community
so it is organized around
compassion and serving the vulnerable,
still seems a lot more compelling to me
than simply sticking with Natural Selection.
But that’s just one man’s opinion.